Commentary

Mystique and the Problem of Gaze

Or, the insufficiency of binary feminist criticism in mutant discourse.

Richard Siken wrote the line history is a little man in a brown suit/trying to define a room he is outside of. A lot of the time, that’s how I feel about gender.

Growing up assigned-female, I was drawn to the idea of being ‘not like other girls.’ I spent most of my time with boys, but reveled in not being one of them. I tested out binding and packing for years before my best friend bought me my first binder. I talked to trans men about drag, about whether it was okay for someone like me — then thinking I was a girl — to participate.

When I started wandering around the queerer parts of the internet — you know, the places where kids try out new names and pronouns and try to explain themselves with a language none of us were ever taught and half of us only halfway understand. Tumblr’s a big part of that, especially for me. While I still thought I was cis, someone said, anonymously, that they’d thought I was nonbinary.

For some reason — wink, nudge — that mattered to me. So I started to consider things. What did I do with the characters I liked? I made them trans. Usually, I made them nonbinary.

And I looked back, too, on the single most consequential figure in my queer youth: Mystique, as played by Rebecca Romijn. Mystique in her nakedness, her refusal to conform. Cis feminists, I’ve since learned, see her as a concession to the male gaze, using the subtly insidious “empowered naked lady” trope. It’s the trope people associate with any character with breasts who maybe, sometimes, shows them.

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Can We Talk About MacGyver For a Second?

Okay, I know that MacGyver isn’t the genre this blog is nominally about, but MacGyver does something right that I’m not sure any of the current superhero shows are doing: using the episodic form to deliver fun, uplifting escapism.

Yes, I love long-form storytelling.  Yes, I love character development and arcs and whatnot.  And I love me some solid thematic resonance and dystopia.  These are all important to have, and to see them done right is important.  But man, the special thing about TV, the thing that for me pulls TV and comics into parallel as mediums, is the concept of the episodic story.

Go back and open up a comic from the Golden or Silver Age — I’m talking like, Lee/Kirby X-Men or Siegel/Shuster Action Comics, here, go straight to the beginning — and you’ll find that each individual issue tells a self-contained story that, frankly, is reminiscent of episodic storytelling that would later become a staple of television.  The overarching stories don’t really exist yet — it’s just the plot of the moment, the characters you love, and the understanding that the good guys are going to win.

Lucas Till as Angus MacGyver

See this nerd? I started this show because of him, so it’s his fault you have to listen to me yell about this.

MacGyver on CBS has mastered this.  Yes, there are overarching plotlines: Murdoc escaping prison, Nikki’s position as a double agent, Bozer learning to handle his crush on Riley without resorting to terminology like the ‘friend zone.’  But fundamentally, the show excels when it tells a good, tight A-story for most of the hour, and gives us a reason to care about the characters.  Tonight on the show, Riley has to take on her first solo mission, and Jack, her father figure, is super uncomfortable and overprotective about it.  That’s it, that’s the whole point of the episode.

And yeah, you know that Riley’s going to be fine, and that the team is going to save the day, but the show invests you so deeply in the characters themselves that you still feel the suspense when she’s in danger, you still get upset when Jack fights with everyone and anyone, taking out his worry on his teammates.

Personally, I think the superhero genre could do with a show like this — a show with a fairly light tone, that’s high on octane and low on longterm plotting, and where you tune in every week not because you have to know what happens next, but because you love the characters and want to hear another story about them.  It’s why people tuned in for Star Trek: The Original Series, too, and why early comic books worked as well as they did.

There’s something to be said for telling a multi-issue or multi-episode story arc, I agree.  But I feel like those stories are dominating the genre right now, and we could do with an episodic story or two in all the chaos.

I tune in to MacGyver every week, I get invested, I freak out a little and flail (the most obviously neurodivergent/potentially autistic behavior I exhibit), because I love the characters so much, and I’m so happy to be there with them and to watch their story.  I’m not worried, because I trust the showrunners to tell me a story I will enjoy, so I’m free to sink into the fun of Mac and Jack’s old-marrieds-type bickering, into Matty’s mama-bear instincts over her team, into MacGyver building a pacemaker out of paperclips and a car speaker — the stuff about the show that is fun.

I can’t name a single currently running superhero show — not one! — that makes me feel the way MacGyver does, and I think the genre could use it.